Man Hunt (Blu-ray Review)1 Sep, 2014 By: Mike Clark
Available via ScreenArchives.com
Stars Walter Pidgeon, Joan Bennett, George Sanders, John Carradine.
Before The Secret Beyond the Door went way south at the box office a little bit after the war, there was a period in the 1940s when Fritz Lang was almost a commercial director in the better sense of the word as his dark sensibility managed to sync for a while with the general public’s. Originally intended for John Ford — you will see familiar Ford personnel peppering the opening credits — this significant hit in Lang’s career is a most entertaining suspense thriller with a dramatically tantalizing table-setter. Which is: How might the life of a sportsman/hunter played by Walter Pidgeon have changed in 1939 had he squeezed the trigger when he had Adolf Hitler in his rifle site? And to be sure, a lot of other lives as well.
Of course, this was 1941 — specifically, a mid-June opening after Darryl Zanuck rushed the picture’s release — and America was not yet in the war. Hollywood filming of a propagandistic a wake-up call was still enough to get the result looked upon with askance by Congressional isolationists, though the coming Pearl Harbor attack would immediately zip the lips of the latter until some of those still around and a newer breed of fools could make some postwar mischief by investigating Hollywood. Austrian-born, Nazi-hating Lang had, of course, escaped his adopted country after his impressive reign as the royalty of German cinema throughout the ’20s and very early ’30s — and he obviously knew of what he spoke. Early on, we see Pidgeon captured by Nazis (including George Sanders as one with a monocle) and rightly sense that Lang wanted to give the former’s torture scenes more explicit kick, though certainly they are suggestive enough.
Other censorship concerns had to do with Joan Bennett’s character at a time when the actress was beginning her run as, it has been said, Lang’s favorite actress — later to reach full culmination as Edward G. Robinson’s temptresses in The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street. Once a blonde Amy in the Selznick-Cukor Little Women, Bennett took off career-wise when she darkened her hair and started playing chippies, though the so-called seamstress she’s supposed to be here has such a warmly unpretentious disposition that fleeing Pidgeon almost treats her as a favored adolescent youngster, though he definitely needs her help. Otherwise, Bennett may have a sewing machine in her flat but otherwise walks the walk of someone who might have a vice arrest somewhere on her resume. There was a period when the Breen Office, which acted as Hollywood’s official censor, must have done a duck-and-cover number every time there was an announcement of a Lang-Bennett movie in the works. I still can’t figure out how Lang and Dudley Nichols (Man Hunt’s screenwriter as well) pushed the censors as far as they did in Scarlet Street.
Things that bother me in other movies don’t do so here. On paper, Sanders and John Carradine have sketchy characterizations without backstories, but the actors are so dead-on in their roles that we don’t miss these villain’s biographical notes. City streets in older movies often give away that they were shot on sets, but in this case, Lang dresses the sets superbly with cars, lampposts, reflected wet tiles and the like with his patented geometrical design schemes. There’s even a little comedy — something as rare on Lang productions as actors who liked him — as in the scene where Pidgeon and unpolished Bennett pay a visit on his mucky-muck politico brother, a culture clash ready to happen.
Soon to be semi-immortalized by John Ford in How Green Was My Valley opposite Pidgeon, Roddy McDowall made his screen debut here as a cabin boy after William Wyler had chosen him for Valley’s central role during the period when Wyler was going to direct that picture. So Ford passed on Man Hunt to do Valley, thereby giving Lang a nice commercial break. Meanwhile, Wyler passed on Valley, eventually enabling him to win his first Oscar for Mrs. Miniver over at MGM, which goes to show that even though things don’t always work out, they sometimes do (Wyler later passed on The Sound of Music to film The Collector, a sound decision in all ways other than those involving the wallet). With Lang directing and Valley’s Arthur Miller behind the camera, this release is what vintage black-and-white is all about. The isolated music track, a Twilight Time staple, showcases Alfred Newman’s score, which makes some use of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.”